Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Early Reader

   When we were younger, nobody had as much money as they do now to spend on completely dispensable items. And however much you love reading and feel that you couldn't live without it, that's exactly what books are. The books we read were all borrowed from the library, bought at charity and second-hand shops, on loan from friends. The books which accompanied me through my childhood were, for the most part, old. Delightfully battered paperbacks which had been in the family for years, picture books with that one little scribble, deliciously obscure volumes which would be next to impossible to find today.
   What I've realised while trying to make any kind of list of the books I particularly loved as a child is that they fall into broadly the same categories as the books I love now. Was my character, were my tastes formed so early? I fell straight into reading fantasy, historical fiction, natural history, and mysteries, with occasional side-helpings of 'anything I could get my hands on'. From a young age I appear to have been carefully selecting my reading material from among what was available at home, and nurturing my own reading habit. All of the books I'll mention in this post are ones which I still feel very passionate about, and would reread in a heartbeat.
   I suppose I should start reeling off titles now. Let's assume that I read and loved most of the childrens' classics - it will save so much time and typing. 'The Secret Garden', 'Anne of Green Gables', the Narnia series, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, 'A Little Princess', the Doctor Doolittle series, 'Ballet Shoes', the Pippi Longstocking and Mary Poppins series, Asterix and Tintin  - all these and more I read and reread as I grew up. 
Old book - buy secondhand
   Attempting some sort of order, two picture books I loved (and still own) were 'The Farmer and the Moon' by Annaliese Lussert and 'Rechenka's Eggs' by Patricia Polacco. The first is a parable of generosity and kindness, involving a poor farmer being able to retrieve the silver reflection of the moon from a pond, while the rich farmer cannot. The second is a simple tale of the decorating of eggs by a Babushka in Russia - when an adopted and injured goose breaks all the eggs Babushka has painstakingly decorated, it starts to lay intricately decorated eggs to repay her kindness.
   We had a number of books on cassette tape which we listened to on long car journeys, of which there were plenty. Luckily we loved the stories so much that we didn't mind listening to the same ones over and over again. We had 'The Butterfly Lion' by Michael Morpurgo, 'The Cuckoo Child' by Dick King-Smith, the Sophie series also by Dick King-Smith, and some particularly brilliant recordings of 'Danny the Champion of the World' and 'George's Marvellous Medicine'
Old book - secondhand
   I always loved books about animals, whether that meant natural history (Gerald Durrell and Jim Herriot), books with animals as the main character ('Bel Ria' by Sheila Burnford and 'Thomasina' by Paul Gallico were two particular favourites), or stories of highly anthropomorphised woodland creatures (Brian Jacques' Redwall series). Years later, while a teenager, I read Rumer Godden's 'The Dark Horse', which remains one of my favourite books ever. 
   My mother found me one of the Professor Branestawm books at one stage, telling me that they were favourites of hers as a child. And I loved them. Norman Hunter's classic books tell the story of the quintessential absent-minded genius professor. Branestawm wears five pairs of spectacles – one for reading, one for writing, one for out of doors, one for looking at you over the top of and a fifth pair for looking for the others on the frequent occasions when they get lost. Someday I'll pass on 'The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm' to a child, and keep the wheel turning.
   On holiday one year, we were all allowed to get one book in a local bookshop. I picked a graphic novel version of 'Ivanhoe' by Sir Walter Scott, which I loved. My other historical fiction favourites were 'Tristan and Iseult' by Rosemary Sutcliff, 'The Children of the New Forest' by Frederick Marryat, 'Little House in the Big Woods' by Laura Ingalls Wilder, 'The Silver Sword' by Ian Serraillier, and Henry Treece's Viking series.  
New ed: Walker, £4.99
   Good fantasy often springs directly from mythology, and there were many volumes of myth and legend which I loved. I bought Jamila Gavin's 'Three Indian Princesses' for myself from a book token I got as a present when I was six; this beautiful volume contains the stories of the princesses Savitri, Damayanti, and Sita, and I read it endlessly. Michael Scott's superb De Danann series ('Windlord', 'Earthlord', and 'Firelord') are based on Irish mythology, and of course the classic myths such as the stories of Momotarō, the Japanese peach boy, of Väinämöinen stealing the Sampo, of Baba Yaga in her hut which stands on chicken legs, of Sigurd and the dragon, and of Sundiata's reclamation of his rightful throne were favourites. Alan Garner's classics 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' and 'The Owl Service' are based on, respectively English and Welsh mythology, with a sprinkling of other mythologies thrown into the first, which has a broader range. 'The Owl Service' is still one of my favourite books - atmospheric, suspenseful, and powerful. 
New ed: Lion Hudson, £6.99
   Classic fantasy such as 'The Hobbit' soon followed, as did beautiful tales like 'The Little White Horse' by Elizabeth Goudge, 'Tom's Midnight Garden' by Philippa Pearce, Ursula le Guin's be-all and end-all Earthsea trilogy (afterwards to become a quintet), and the marvellous 'The Rout of the Ollafubs' by Katharine Lethbridge, which absolutely defies description. 
   I'm sure in days to come many more titles will occur to me accompanied by flashes of blinding light, but I think what I have here is enough for one evening anyway.  
  What is it about the books we read as children that makes our memories of them so enduring, and so fond? Would any book read at that age have had as powerful an impression, or is it also dependent on the material? Whatever the reason, I've found that remembering these amazing books is a source of great joy and enthusiasm, as I put on my bookseller's badge and get ready to pass these gems on to another generation.


  1. Ahh some lovely memories here!
    Ballet Shoes! omg..I adored those books..
    same with Anne of Green Gables..and The Weirdstone..wow..such beautiful memories of evenings lost in books :)
    I used to always go to the library with my Mam on a Friday after school, and I'd take out the max (was just 5 back then) and devour them over the weekend. My parents always read in bed at night, and so I always did too. It was dead weird getting married and being with someone who had no concept of this!!

  2. ha it's so funny I distinctly remember loving 'The Farmer and the Moon'and Rechenka's Eggs' aswell, because you most likely shoved them in Mam's hands when I was little and told her to read them to me, not asked, told!:P